High-velocity Philly rocker Wax Mekanix takes over Music and Money this week, sharing his insights from over four decades of playing music. Read on to find out his thoughts on DIY culture, day jobs, and much more!
Tell our readers all about your band! Where are you from and when did you get started?
I'm Wax Mekanix. I'm a solo songwriter, singer, guitarist, drummer, and percussionist.
I’m also a 7th generation American man. I was born in an unassuming typical small town in central Pennsylvania. I’ve been fortunate to have traveled the world, so I feel really comfortable wherever I am. I now call Philadelphia home.
In addition to my solo work, I'm a founding member of the loud and heavy American cult rock quartet, Nitro. Not the LA glam hairband that we all enjoyed on MTV in the late 80s -- Dana Confer, John Hazel, Brad Gensimore, and I formed Nitro in 1980 and were part of the US's answer to the NWOBHM. I've got more than a few years of writing, recording, and gigging under my belt. When I step outside of Nitro for musical fun, I don't have a static lineup to my band, so it depends on what/where I'm playing. There are so many inspiring creative people in the world to discover, so this is the appeal of flying solo in the way that I do it.
Although I’m a bit puzzled by it, I’m grateful that our records are held in such high regard. At the risk of making more out of it than it really is, we have a unique, modest pedigree because of the fact that Nitro was on the tip of the spear as part of America’s answer to the first cries of the new wave of British heavy metal. So I’m thankful for that.
For my solo music, the rock scene in and around Philadelphia is robust and strong. It offers a tasty buffet of varying styles and line-ups that reflect the depth and breadth of the region’s musical history and influences. There are plenty of clubs, studios, engineers, producers, and musicians available to help creative people like me make original music. Just about all of those seem to be constantly shedding creative skin and evolving in some way, so it’s a healthy place to be for someone like me.
For my new solo record Mobocracy (released on Electric Talon Records on November 20th, 2020) I surrounded myself with some excellent musician friends -- like the heavy funky groove merchants of Crobot, Brandon Yeagley and Chris Bishop. Along with Bishop, you’ll also hear guitars and bass by Tom Altman, Wendell “Pops” Sewell, and John Hazel. Some stratospheric backing vocalists join me and Brandon. We are howling along with M11SON, Raje Shwari, Tommy Conwell, Eli Goldman, Nataliya Odud, and Lectriq.
I produced and mixed Mobocracy with Maxim Lectriq and Machine.
What is your music like?
In general, my work is considered heavy rock exhibiting some contemporary and some classic qualities. Specifically, I create, what I like to call, high-velocity folk music. This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s acoustic. Mobocracy is a focused, strident, snarling, slamming, howling stew of guitars, bass, drums, and vocals that’s being described as edgy, atypical, 3-dimensional, groovy, literate, and of and for its time.
I mostly write by myself, but a few songs on Mobocracy were written with Yeagley and Bishop, John Hazel, and Lectriq. The themes span a really broad range. But, although not deliberate, and mostly in spite of design, they inevitably reveal themselves to be about me in some way.
The goal of Mobocracy was directly tied to the times I found myself in when I was writing the songs. America was radically transforming right before my eyes. History shows us that artists will not let this kind of tectonic shift in American life pass without comment. I’m just commenting now. I wanted to design something that felt and read like the aggression, anger, and dark turmoil that most of America, and probably the world, was feeling.
I was trying to create a set of contemporary songs with connective tissue made of my decades of history, experience, and influences. My open-minded, brave, and adventurous audience knows to be prepared for some sonic and thematic swerves, depending on what is influencing me when I make records. So, although Mobocracy sounds like it does, my next record is shaping up to sound unlike it. This is exciting for me and keeps me creatively healthy, inspired, and looking toward the musical horizon. In the final analysis, I trust my instincts that this is what anyone that is interested in what I do, wants from me.
What are your goals for your band?
My goals are modest, really. I have always seen what I do, kind of like a marathon, not a sprint. I don’t have any desire to conquer the world. It sounds like a cliché, but I really love the work, the people I work with, and enjoy most of the facets of being an artist. I’d be happy to continue to be a self-sustaining recording and performing songwriter. My mantra is: write, record, perform for interested audiences, rinse, and repeat!
What do you do for a living?
In addition to being a musician, my "Clark Kent" is as an engineer with degrees from a few of America’s best universities.
How do you balance your work and personal life with the band?
This is not easy and is a function of constant, honest, and robust communication with my family. I have to be vigilant and regularly revisit the fact that they are not the ones who want to live the life of practicing musicians and all of the oddball things that come with it. I respect that they don't have the same passions or chase the muses that I do, so we are open with each other. This way we can cultivate a healthy rewarding life together that has room for all of us to grow personally, creatively, and professionally.
What do you consider to be the best investment you've made, music-wise?
Although I have some very cool musical tools and toys, my best investment has been educating myself and developing my profession as an engineer. Obviously, this is not musical, but it has enabled me to do a few very important things that have made me the artist that I am. Specifically, it has freed me from the vicious black hole of poverty that so many dedicated musicians are confronted with. We all know musicians that have to “compromise" their creative pursuits just to make ends meet. This can take the form of battling a record company executive over creative choices or having to play a gig that’s not exactly what we think we should be playing.
Thankfully, I don’t have to do any of that. This is huge for me and frees my creative spirit in so many ways that I feel genuinely blessed by this one aspect. Also, the dreaded “real job” has forced me to build and strengthen other parts of my mind, personality, and lifestyle. These things translate so well when forging a career in music. I use these non-musical skills I have developed when I’m doing everything but writing songs. Things like reading contracts, managing gigs and recording sessions, deciding on merch and swag, reporting taxes, and balancing P&L relative to musical endeavors. The list is longer than that, for sure.
What's the worst or least helpful thing you've ever spent money on as a musician/band?
In a word…managers. Ugh. I don’t want to diminish the vocation of management, but unless you are KISS or Taylor Swift with a billion moving parts and logistics that take full-time professionals, the majority of artists can get their own beer and chips, book a hotel room or flight, and make it to the gig on time. I know that there are some very critical things that great professional managers do, but I have regretted every single time I have employed a manager and found that my decisions were as good or better than theirs. It’s probably specific to my career and style, but there you have it.
What kind of merch sells the best for your band?
Without hesitation, shirts. It’s timeless. It's an essential uniform, badge of honor, social and glorious personal statement. On some level, we all want to belong. For as long as I can remember, this is a joy-filled fail-safe way of planting your personal flag in the ground firmly and saying, this is who I am and this is my tribe. Maybe I’m over-thinking it, but that is the way I always felt as I pulled on my band t-shirts. It’s like putting on a superhero suit in many ways. For so many, there is some kind of palpable power that comes with it. When you see anyone anywhere in the world with a similar shirt, without saying anything, with just a look, you’re instantly connected. I love that about merch.
And what do you purchase most often as a music listener?
The music, for sure. It’s the whole reason for everything that swirls around musicians. I do my best to support worthy musicians by leading with my wallet when I can, and love oddball stuff that they come up with. Ingenious branding is going on and some of it is really brilliant.
If you've been on tour, can you share some tour budgeting tips?
Yes…don’t hire a manager and do things on your own. Remember that what we do is a weird complicated confluence of commerce and art. It’s a business governed by profit and loss. Think about things before you do them, with the goal of making it self-sustaining. We are all capable of booking an effective and efficient jaunt when we head to the beach or the mountains with family, so bring that to your touring. You’ll save a ton.
Which online music or social media platforms are most helpful to your band?
Although I have many reasons to debate the impact and methods of Spotify, it’s de rigueur, isn’t it? My reaction is to say, necessary evil because they are not protecting the proverbial geese laying the golden eggs, are they? I am thinking that they may be the new “record labels” that did not care properly for the wellsprings of the music? Someone is making a lot of money from streaming and it is well-known that it is not the music creators. So, time will tell.
I think Bandcamp has provided independent artists the opportunity to take control of their own financial destiny if they want to. I’m convinced that really good quality music that is supported by related swag/products will enable exceptional talent to be sustainable. All of this can be independent of chasing the elusive and mythical record deal.
What does "making it" mean to you, and what do you think a band needs to make it in today's musical landscape?
This is easy and simple for me to answer. The Zen view is, all that my work has to do is satisfy me. Full stop. The notion of "making it" means that my songwriting, recording, and performing is self-sustaining and self-perpetuating. It's independent of venue size, profit, critical acceptance, social media coverage or traffic, Facebook likes, Spotify streams, retweets, etc. All of that is nice and a noble goal, but if I can do what I do without tapping into my bank account, that's success to me. My thinking is, if I do good work, my audience will find and support me. I think this is healthy because, if I'm feeling unencumbered and liberated from outside forces sapping my creative energy, I'll do better work. I'm confident that this will resonate with anyone interested in artists like me.
I'd not presume to know what anyone else should do when it comes to creative stuff. But, my only advice would be to write and play what turns you on regardless of what anyone else says. Finally, there is no substitute for getting out there and doing your thing in front of people. Do that enough and you'll get to be really good at it. Do that enough and you'll fine tune your art. Do that enough and you'll attract like-minded people who will support and encourage you.
To learn more about budgeting, band finances, and more, order Money Hacks for Metalheads and Old Millennials in paperback and ebook formats: https://amzn.to/3lCsFdq
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